Can I Interest You in a Dark Carnival? Bo Burnham, Ray Bradbury, and Our Modern Hall of Mirrors

You might be asking yourself, why are you talking about Inside, Bo Burnham’s latest comedy special, on this site? First of all it’s a remarkable comedy special, filled with repeating imagery and echoing language that makes me think of a linked short story collection—like if A Visit from the Goon Squad or The Martian Chronicles were reworked into a stand-up show. The other reason is that I’m a person prone to earworms, and this thing has blown past earworm and landed in Nam-Shub territory. I watched the special last week and I’ve had “making a literal difference, metaphorically” and “Oh shit—you’re really joking at a time like this?” looping in my head continuously for days. Maybe this will get them out. But I encourage you all to go watch it because I am neither the first, nor shall I be the last, to say that Inside is probably the definitive work of art to come out of the pandemic.

But still you might ask, why am I talking about it here? Because at just about the halfway point, the special veers into fantasy/horror of a very specific nature.

Inside is a series of discrete scenes and satirical songs that are beaded together on the narrative thread of Burnham making a special to try to stay creative in quarantine. He shows us the means of production. We watch him set up cameras, test lights and color wheels, watch him watch himself angling his face for the camera. The shots are edited together in a short montage, and then over the course of the show we see the results of some of the tests. He cuts images of himself with longer hair and beard into the opening moments. He makes it clear that this is a construction, it’s been rehearsed, re-shot, edited. But because he also includes moments that appear to be candid, behind-the-scenes fuck-ups, and what might be raw quarantine ennui, the lines between himself-as-creator, the latest evolution of his stage persona, and the various characters he plays are constantly blurred and redrawn. This immediately makes you wonder how much of what you’re watching is “real”—did he really just drop that camera? Is he really yelling at himself for blowing a take? He throws the word “content” around a lot, addresses the camera, wonders if anyone’s watching, wonders if people have him on in the background while they fuck around on their phones. 

The “content” (and holy fuck am I glad Burnham seems to hate that word as much as I do) can be claustrophobic, hilarious, and frightening all within the same scene.

Once again I find I’m having to throw a content warning up before I go any further. This special is an overstuffed Chipotle burrito of musings on mental health, and discussions of suicide, so please tread carefully while you watch it. (Personally, I’ve found this era of “comedy that makes you sob actually” something of a life raft—but I’m also a person who laughs uncontrollably at Weird Al’s “Mr. Frump in the Iron Lung”, so I may not be trustworthy.) But I think one of the core ideas at work here is the explosion of the internet since the turn of the century, and how the constant performance of a self is reshaping humanity.

This is a fraught topic for Burnham, given that he started his career as a viral 16-year-old Youtube star, who, rather than churning out variations on his first few hits, chose to create complicated comedy/theater performances that are never quite what you think they are. He later wrote and directed Eighth Grade, a film about a 13-year-old and the gaps between a social media persona and life in meatspace, and has spoken knowledgeably about the dangers of mediation at schools, at Google, in The New Yorker, basically anywhere he could find a platform. So it’s only fair that after his 20-year career, shortly after his 30th birthday, Burnham takes on the character of The Internet itself.

Bo Burnham: Inside screenshot via Netflix

Which is where I need to dip in Ray Bradbury for a moment. When Burnham needs to personify the internet, he uses a few small props and a swirling theme to create a demonic persona that reminded me of nothing so much as Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes.

Crooger and Dark’s Pandemonium Shadow Show roves across the land, ensnaring people who want everything.

You saw the mirrors! And the mirrors shoved me half in, half out the grave. Showed me all wrinkles and rot! Blackmailed me! Blackmailed Miss Foley so she joined the grand march Nowhere, joined the fools who wanted everything! Idiot thing to want: everything! Poor damned fools. So wound up with nothing like the dumb dog who dropped the bone to go after the reflection of the bone in the pond.

And how do they do this? They entrap people in a hall of mirrors that show them the future, the implacable passage of time, reflects images of themselves at 90, 110, shriveled and shrunken into impossible ages beyond that. They show them the inevitability of decay and death.

And their solution? A magical/cursed carousel that runs backwards and strips years from its passengers, until they stumble from their horses younger, fresher. But only on the outside. The eyes that look out are the eyes they went in with. They’re no longer quite themselves. They’re lost to themselves.

The book’s heroes, Will and Jim, are still innocent at 13, but beset on all sides by sexuality and experience they’re not quite ready for. They’re drawn to the carnival, and even once they’ve faced the fact that it’s evil, Jim still feels its pull. The thing that saves them, initially, is their quick thinking in not giving Mr. Dark their real names. But their true weapons are ones I find both impossibly corny and compelling in equal measure: books and laughter.

Faced with a chance to age themselves into adulthood and experience on the carousel, and getting everything they want in a soul-destroying way, they find refuge in the library where Will’s father works as a janitor. It’s Will’s dad who researches the carnival and learns that it’s hundreds of years old (later inspiring The Loser’s Club’s research into Pennywise in Stephen King’s IT), and it’s him, not the boys, who figures out that the way to defeat the carnival is to laugh at it.

Again, corny. Yes. And yet. The whole book reads to me now (as “adult” as I’m ever likely to get) as a battle between innocence and experience, between fighting for any kind of immortality and accepting Death. Personally, I have to root for the idea of laughing in Death’s face.

Which brings us back to Bo Burnham, and “Welcome to the Internet.” The Internet, personified as an Evil Carnival Barker, plays terrifying calliope music on a keyboard. His eyes are hidden behind mirrors.

I think it’s important to note that Burnham’s earlier, user-level takes on internet life are more innocuous. “White Woman’s Instagram” is a deconstruction of the imagery that’s become common to white women’s internet presence (huge sweater, tiny pumpkins, latte art) which is biting until the moment he explores the sense of grief and loss that lurks behind his main character’s perfect #filtered life. (Check out Den of Geek’s Alec Bojalad on the extraordinary empathy on display here.) A few songs later, “Sexting” does what it says on the tin, narrating a romantic encounter between two people who can’t be in a room together. In both cases the Internet is simply a platform, a canvas, waiting for a projection of idealized people, who are honestly trying to communicate, but are so mediated they can only do it through eggplant emoji and cute pics of golden retrievers in flower crowns. Even in these lighter moments, however, we’re left with the uneasy feeling that everyone on Earth is now performing for an unseen audience, constantly.

But when Burnham tackles The Internet directly he personifies it as a charming, terrifying huckster who gradually reveals himself as a manipulative demon. He ensnares people as children, lures them away from their parents, then becomes increasingly aggressive once he has the hooks in.

Now, cross my heart and nail it to a tree, I am NOT about to write “The Theology of Bo Burnham.” …BUT. Burnham’s talked about religion over the course of his career, generally depicting God as a bitchy absentee parent who has rejected humanity because we suck. (Fair.) But in contrast, he’s also used a specific version of the Devil in his work. In “Repeat Stuff” he riffs on Bill Hicks’ classic bit about pop stars uhhh, pleasuring Satan in exchange for success and wealth by implying that market-tested young stars have corrupted love ballads at the behest of the Dark One; the song’s video makes it even clearer, as Burnham’s Justin Bieber-esque character  is revealed to be an avatar of evil sent to (literally) destroy young girls. In “We Think We Know You” he depicts himself as a young Youtube star, bombarded on all sides by people who are trying to exploit him—at one point, Satan speaks up from under the floorboards, but when Burnham looks ceilingward for a divine rebuttal, the response is literal crickets. Inside takes this ongoing gag on the dark nature of marketing, and makes it a physical person, a Carnival Barker who invites everyone, but especially GenZ, to experience “a little bit of everything, all of the time” and hawks his wares thusly:

See a man beheaded, get offended, see a shrink
Show us pictures of your children, tell us every thought you think
Start a rumor, buy a broom, or send a death threat to a Boomer
Or DM a girl and groom her; do a Zoom or find a tumor in your—
Here’s a healthy breakfast option! (You should kill your mom)
Here’s why women never fuck you! (Here’s how you can build a bomb)
Which Power Ranger are you? Take this quirky quiz!

The lyrics are spit out faster and faster, mirroring the experience of a kid clicking links and ingesting suggested topics at brain-melting pace, as the stars swirls and the calliope music rackets along faster and faster and—

The advice to kill mom is called back a few lyrics later, as the Carnival Barker changes his tone, becoming a sweet, seemingly sincere voice of hope, explaining the past days of the internet against a warm backdrop of a projected cloudscape and soft bisexual lights. He makes it clear that he’s speaking, directly, to kids who were born in the 21st Century. Who have never known an analogue world.

Not very long ago, just before your time
Right before the towers fell, circa ’99
This was catalogs, travel blogs, a chatroom or two
We set our sights and spent our nights waiting for you!
You, insatiable you
Mommy let you use her iPad; you were barely two
And it did all the things we designed it to do

“Mommy”, who wants to give you knowledge, make sure you don’t fall behind, equip you to live in a complicated world, let you have access to the larger world waiting in the digital space. She couldn’t possibly keep an eye on everything you were seeing—and neither could any other parents, guardians, teachers, older siblings, librarians—there’s simply too much. No regular adult with a job and responsibilities can fight the carnival. The Barker shifts into the empowering language that will be familiar to any Digital Native of a Certain Age:

And if we stick together, who knows what we’ll do?
It was always the plan to put the world in your hand

Bo Burnham: Inside screenshot via Netflix

And, having drawn you back in, the Internet emits a genuinely terrifying laugh. He got us again! We’re back, because where else will we go? He can give us everything, all of the time, and what can compete with that? The camera even backs away, but where can it go? It’s not safe to go outside.

Did I mention that the only effects on display are the mirrored sunglasses the Carnival Barker wears, and a light display created by one of the mini home projectors that are hawked in every viral tweet thread? But that it’s still fucking terrifying?

This was what hit me about Bradbury’s story—it reads to me not so much as a coming-of-age story, but as an exposure. Even before the carnival comes to town, there’s change on the horizon. Will can feel Jim pulling away a little bit. The boys recently discovered (while out stealing from their neighbors’ fruit trees, obviously) what seemed to be an orgy taking place in a house that also may have been a theater. Jim wants to keep going back and spy on the adults, Will is horrified and disturbed that Jim finds it alluring. But only a few pages later, Will’s the one who muses on a barber’s pole, catching on the idea that the red stripes comes from nothing and goes back to nothing, eternally, and that it looks like a tongue sliding endlessly around the white pole.

Throughout the book, the boys hope in vain for an adult, someone who will swoop in and save them from Mr. Dark. They hope for some authority, the police or a teacher or the church, to see through Mr. Dark’s magic and save them. This doesn’t happen—the adults are either easily duped or eager to risk it all for a carousel ride. When one character tries to use religion against Mr. Dark, he scoffs and chucks the brandished Bible in a wastebasket. When Will, forever the more starry-eyed of the boys, tries to suggest crosses and holy water, Jim dismisses it as “movie stuff.” The boys have to recognize that adulthood is, in many ways, a sham, and there is no perfect objective authority that will take care of them. It falls on them, repeatedly, to protect their parents from the truth, to try to shield their mothers from danger. Even “being good”, Will’s other wild hope, is no surefire protection from the evil of Mr. Dark. There is only one adult who can help, finally, but even that’s a beautiful fluke.

The first time I ever went into a chat room, I gave a fake name. Fake name, fake parentage, real opinions on The X-Files. I was talking with someone who claimed to be a man about a decade older than me, and in a different country, but who knows? Who can ever be sure who anyone is? On the fly, exhilarated by talking with someone I’d never meet, I created a version of myself that was removed enough to share my real opinions without giving any of my self away. It was early internet days, before the Towers fell. I had friends who did startling things, using words because they didn’t know how to use their bodies yet, but I stuck to conversation that was both completely heartfelt (I loved The X-Files!) and completely fake (this person would never be able to find me in meatspace!). How shocking it was to read Something Wicked This Way Comes and see how instinctively Will and Jim shy away from sharing their names, and invent new personae on the spot. How impossible now, when the Internet explodes with tentacles that reach into every corner of your life.

What is the Internet now but that fucking carousel, dragging you through time and forcing you to experience life before you’re ready? Pummeling you with info and takes and racist ducks and horrible geese. (OK, the Horrible Goose can stay.) What is it but the hall of mirrors, trapping your past selves forever behind the glass of a screen, and making you a stranger to yourself? To step back into “White Woman’s Instagram” for a moment—the reason it can be confused with “Heaven” is that the life represented is perfect, glowing, fixed. It’s where the song’s protagonist can dodge around the reality of time and death by creating a form of immortality—but it’s also where she can speak to her parents, who, we learn, have both died. Wouldn’t you rather stay there, full of wine with daisies artfully placed over each eye?

Which…speaking of eyes. That was another thing that caught me in Something Wicked this time, the way Bradbury’s eyes are almost never just eyes. The first time we make eye contact with Will it’s with only one of his eyes “a single eye as open, bright and clear as a drop of summer rain” while his friend Jim’s are initially “mint rock-crystal green”, and later become jade when Will looks at him. Cooger and Dark’s eyes are both described as being fiery at some points, with Dark’s transforming into “fiery Catherine Wheel eyes” when he’s on the verge of defeat. But that’s not too surprising for a demonic force—what I was more struck by was how two different characters’ eyes were compared to cameras. Twice characters are essentially set on the boys to track them down for Dark’s dark purposes, and both times their eyes cease being true eyes, with anything behind them, and become simple recording devices. In a book that has scarcely any tech—the boys use telephones a few times; cars are mentioned three times—the insistence on the eye-as-camera grows more and more chilling. Dark wants to record the boys, to capture them.

At the end of Inside, Burnham’s stage persona asks you to look in his eye, singular—because it’s not his eye you’re looking into its a camera, or a screen. There’s nothing behind it, except recording equipment to immortalize you, or the Internet, waiting to capture you in a different way.

There’s a Bill Hicks bit I think about a lot.

By the way if anyone here is in advertising or marketing… kill yourself. It’s just a little thought; I’m just trying to plant seeds. Maybe one day they’ll take root—I don’t know. You try, you do what you can. (Kill yourself.)  Seriously though, if you are, do.

Aaah, no really. There’s no rationalization for what you do and you are Satan’s little helpers. Okay—kill yourself. Seriously. You are the ruiner of all things good. Seriously.

No this is not a joke. You’re going, “There’s going to be a joke coming.” There’s no fucking joke coming. You are Satan’s spawn filling the world with bile and garbage. You are fucked and you are fucking us. Kill yourself. It’s the only way to save your fucking soul. Kill yourself.

Planting seeds.

I know all the marketing people are going, “He’s doing a joke…” There’s no joke here whatsoever. Suck a tail-pipe, fucking hang yourself, borrow a gun from a Yank friend—I don’t care how you do it. Rid the world of your evil fucking machinations…machi…? Whatever, you know what I mean. I know what all the marketing people are thinking right now too: “Oh, you know what Bill’s doing? He’s going for that anti-marketing dollar. That’s a good market. He’s very smart.”

Oh man, I am not doing that, you fucking, evil scumbags!

“Ooh, you know what Bill’s doing now? He’s going for the righteous indignation dollar. That’s a big dollar. A lot of people are feeling that indignation. We’ve done research—huge market. He’s doing a good thing.”

Goddammit, I am not doing that, you scumbags! Quit putting a goddamn dollar sign on every fucking thing on this planet.

(A great bit, yeah? Gosh, I wonder why he was never popular in the States?)

Now, I’m in marketing, kind of. Digital marketing, even. I write creatively, sure, I look for meaning in pop culture, I try to write thoughtful book reviews, I work hard on my essays, and I’m funny in the work Slack. All of it, especially now, is just me trying desperately to reach people. To communicate and allow my mind (or, fuck it, as Mr. Hicks would have it, soul?) to connect with another person’s, even if only for a moment.

But! I work on the internet. In marketing. This post isn’t a gift I’m giving you, I’m being paid to write it. If you’re reading this you’re giving me your time, freely, and I’m trying to honor that with honesty in return. But it’s still not a gift, is it? I’m trying to give you, literally, a piece of my mind. But is it worth it, since I had to make a pact with the Carnival Barker to do it? Can my attempts to plant seeds of thought and connection ever be enough to justify working within this structure? But if I’m outside the structure, I won’t reach anyone, right? Am I offering a respite from the carnival, or am I just another pane of glass in the maze? Inside is on Netflix, “Welcome to the Internet” is on Youtube, the soundtrack is on Spotify, Twitter and TikTok are aflame with love and arguments and backlashes to the backlash.

I’ve changed the ending to this essay I think four times? The entire time I’ve been terrified of allowing the DISCOURSE window to slam shut on my fingers. In one of my endings I tied this whole thing together by pointing out that in the book of Something Wicked This Way Comes, laughter actually is the solution. Will’s dad heals the world through comedyboth literally and metaphorically. And that works beautifully in Bradbury’s world, and I tear up when I read it—the way Mr. Dark thinks Charles Halloway has carved a crescent moon into the rubber bullet when it’s actually a smile, the idea that a bullet—a fucking bullet—could be transformed into laughter. The idea that rather than Will telling his dad he loves him that brings the mirrors crashing down, like in the movie, Bradbury hammers home the image of the older man and the pubescent boy dancing and singing and being silly in the face of Death. But this is where it all falls apart because while Inside also ends with laughter, and a crescent moon of a smile, I don’t think the laughter is a way out in this case. I want it to be. I want it to be a crack in the mirror, a hairline fracture in those mirrored sunglasses.

But I think I’d be dishonest wrapping this up so neatly.


Leah Schnelbach carves smiles into all of their bullets. Come discuss the ontology of Bagel Bites with them on Twitter!


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